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When we ignore difference, bad things happen… Some thoughts on the London riots

If we want to prevent such hardships as the current UK riots from happening again, we’ll need to understand and appreciate how the different life experiences of people who have done things we would never condone, may have shaped their recent decisions…

The Pembury Estate, Hackney

The Pembury Estate, Hackney

It’s hard to comprehend how greatly our respective lived experiences can lead us to differ so drastically from one another; how they can create underpinning beliefs in us that seem as insane to someone else, as they are fundamental to who we are.

At the start of the latest recession, I was in a car with a fairly conservative uncle and inadvertently made reference to greed in the financial sector nearly causing the collapse of the global economy. He exploded and told me that greed made the world go ‘round, and that all of the work I do (campaigning, charity, etc) could only exist (i.e. – be funded) through the results of that greed.

I was a bit shocked by the logic of this response. Greed so clearly seemed like what was wrong with the global economy, and yet my uncle seemed to fully believe it to be a virtue! I didn’t know where to start, so we stayed mostly quiet for the rest of the car ride…

He and I have lived very different lives, in a number of ways. Without addressing the details, there’s a point at which this difference must be accepted; not as a way of justifying his views (I still think they’re fundamentally wrong), but as a way of trying to explain them and engage with them.

Fast forward to East London, 2011

The view from the flat, Tuesday morning

A view from the flat, Tuesday morning

Sitting in my adopted home of London, in the 4th floor Hackney flat I share with my wife, I can still see smoke billowing up on the horizon to the north east of us. It’s less than it was yesterday, but the city is still burning, after 3+ days of rioting.

A combination of fear and not knowing what I could possibly be doing to help, have mostly kept me at home (baring an initial foray to Hackney’s own ground zero on Monday evening and the #RiotCleanUp activities there the next morning).

As I’ve been sitting here, reading and Tweeting, I’ve been shocked – as I know many others I’m in touch with have – as to the hatred that has emerged from the woodworks in the face of this mass unrest.

People who I’ve generally considered progressive and open-minded, have resorted to calls for ‘shoot on sight’ orders against looters, rounding up of immigrants and sterilisation of benefit claimants.

I’ve found this deeply disheartening. More so even than the actions on the streets, as the pre-planned hostility in what they are suggesting. seems to go above and beyond any cruelty the rioters have managed to achieve.

Someone Tweeted “Nothing like a good riot to find out which of your mates are racist, and/or just a bit thick.” That’s a simple truth, but there’s more here…

Why?

Rather than dwell on this, I’ve been trying my best to think about what has brought these responses out in people. Clearly, many of us feel scared, worried, threatened. But one of the recurrent themes I’m coming across is, how hard, from a perspective of someone not in the middle of the violence, it can be to ‘make sense’ of smashing and burning one’s own neighbourhood, or looting new shoes or TVs in response to a police murder.

Hannah Nicklin has written beautifully on this subject, so I won’t dwell on specific possible motivations, but am interested in how reluctant so many of us are to acknowledge that the people burning cars in recent days, while sharing a city with us, have probably lived incomparably different lives to our own.

‘Comfort’ and ‘Struggle’

Here are a few assumptions of difference that my time on the streets of Hackney this week, and some of my youth work background more broadly, have highlighted for me. I’ve (very) crudely classified two broad mindsets as ‘comfort’ (generally experiencing that you can get what you want, if you work hard enough) and ‘struggle’ (experiencing that hard work will most often lead to disappointment and rejection), to represent where I think the crux of difference lies. It’s basically a measure of ‘how much faith you have in the systems around you to work for you, not against you’.

There are all kinds of racial, class, gender and other differences that get caught up in this binary (really, we are all a some combination of both columns), but there is lived experience which, while by no means absolute, often separates those whose bandana-covered faces we’ve seen so much of on the news, from much of the rest of the country.

Comfort

Struggle

“The police are here to protect us and should be supported.” “The police humiliate, oppress and hurt us and shouldn’t be trusted.”
“When you have a problem, there is always an appropriate person (or people) through which it can and should be raised and addressed.” “When you have an issue, you will probably never get listened to and your opinion means nothing to people who make decisions anyway.”
“If you want something, work hard, and you will get it.” “If you want something, you’ll have to find a backdoor way of getting it, or live without it.”
“Everyone has a fair chance at work and education in Britain, if they try hard enough.” “Almost everyone around me is unemployed, without education and on benefits, working low-wage jobs they hate, or doing something illegal to get by.”

The knee-jerk response to this oversimplified distinction would be to say ‘those in the right-hand column are simply wrong’, but would this change countless British peoples’ life experiences and corresponding beliefs? Like with so many things, perception is reality, and in practice, feeling powerless is exactly the same as being powerless. If your lived experience leads you to believe one thing, but someone else tells you it’s wrong because they haven’t experienced it, are you going to belief that your experience has indeed been wrong? Or that this other person is wrong about you?

‘I need this to succeed.’

I think of a friend, who had emerged from a struggling youth in a Northwest London gang and gone on to set-up a small local youth charity, telling me, “I need this to succeed; there’s no one I grew up with who’s been able to do anything like this, and so all the youths today see is a generation above them who are out on the road. They need to see this possibility can be real for them.”

Think about this for a minute. I’m going to guess that this is not the same experience most of the people reading this blog had growing up; the experience that ‘no one from my neighbourhood gets a job or sets up their own business. No one.’ What about: ‘everyone in my group of friends gets stop-and-searched and humiliated by the police. All the time.’?

Or as a youth involved in recent Hackney rioting put it:

“There’s two worlds in this borough. More and more middle classes are coming and we’re being pushed out. The shops are pricing stuff like it’s the West End, we can’t afford the rents. We’re the outcasts, we’re not wanted any more… There’s nothing for us.”

Would this change your understandings of the world at all?

#RiotCleanUp in Hackney, Tuesday morning

#RiotCleanUp in Hackney, Tuesday morning

Like I said, Hannah Nicklin gets into the depths of this much better than I, but I think what’s critical here is to realise and understand how different life is for a lot of people, even if it’s hard to acknowledge that their struggles are happening in our own backyards, with some degree of our ongoing complicity.

When we acknowledge others’ experiences as real – however different from our own – we give ourselves space to address shared concerns together (like safety on the streets, whether from police or gangs). If we can’t acknowledge the realities that might have made some of the recent actions feel acceptable to some, we’re almost certainly doomed to reinforce those realities, and invariably too, the actions they’ve spawned. Alternatively, people and government can start to think seriously about differences in this city and country, if we want to get to a better place, following all of our recent experiences of hurt and fear…


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Posted in diversity and equality and learning.

3 comments

3 Replies

  1. Michael Mooney Aug 14th 2011

    Thanks for this. It reminded me of something that I’d forgotten, that when I was growing up the police were a force to be feared and distrusted, and were definitely not there for us. And I grew up white, working class, and a mile from Glasgow’s leafy West End.
    Remembering that it’s not so hard to understand people seeing them now as oppressive.
    Someone I (used to) follow on Twitter said “How dare they throw stones at our police.” That also helped bring that part of things into focus for me.

  2. Hi Michael – Thanks for the comment. Age is definitely a piece of it I didn’t really touch on, but yes, young people in general often have a lot of bad experiences with police, so the sentiment becomes much more generalised during the teenage years… but I guess one of the differences is those who’s experience changes enough to shift that perception as they get older, vs. those who as full-grown adults still experience a lot of the same things from police most of us get fed up w/ as teens – often due to race and class. But as a reference point, age is a good way of helping make the sentiment more universal – we’ve all been young. Really appreciate the thoughts! Liam

  3. Maybe a starting point is identifying why riots occur so rarely.


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